Ever since Turkmenistan’s eccentric despot Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov died in late 2006, his eccentric, despotic successor has been busy refocusing Niyazov’s pagan-like personality cult on himself.
But Niyazov lives on in one distinct brand that the current strongman dares not touch: Turkmenbashi Vodka.
Bottles of vodka bearing Turkmenbashi’s likeness are in high demand in Ashgabat, the Chronicles of Turkmenistan website reported on April 23.
Not only is the drink still available, but the “types … are becoming more diverse,” the Chronicles, run by exiled Turkmen opposition members, said. “A few days ago souvenir boxes [of vodka] called 'Gift from Turkmenbashi the Great' appeared on the shelves." The new release sells for 152 manats ($53) a bottle (about a sixth of the official monthly salary) and is, according to salespeople in Ashgabat, in high demand: "Perhaps many people in the country believe life was better under Turkmenbashi," the website said.
It is also probably foreign visitors’ favorite gag gift.
Turkmenbashi Vodka won the grand prix at a vodka tasting in Yalta, then in Ukraine, back in 2001, state media boasted at the time. (Turkmenistan.ru also said the bottle won a certificate for best design: “By the way, with a portrait of Saparmurat Niyazov.”)
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s personality cult has so saturated Turkmenistan that people seem to be fed up with purchasing dictator memorabilia. Sluggish demand for calendars featuring portraits of the president (month after month) is reportedly forcing traders to raise their prices in a bid to minimize losses.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports that this year’s version of the calendar featuring Berdymukhamedov striking a pose on each page have not been selling well. The Chronicles suggests the rising price is further damping demand: For one version of the calendars, the price has risen by 25 percent year-on-year, from 45 manats (approximately $16) to 56 manats ($20).
"They are bought only by bureaucrats and businessmen who keep them in their offices to show their loyalty to the president," the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a website run by exiles in Vienna, explained.
Despite losses, the state-run publisher is still printing desk and wall calendars – along with other mementos including giant posters and icon-like charms for car dashboards – because "propaganda is more important than profit in Turkmenistan.”
Kazakhstan’s famous alpine skating rink outside Almaty turned into a love-fest for President Nursultan Nazarbayev this weekend, as skaters were bombarded with pearls of wisdom from his recent state-of-the-nation address.
Hundreds of students from Almaty universities were bussed up to the Medeu complex on January 18 amid an attempt to break the world record for mass alpine skating, with at least 500 people gathering on the ice in the presence of an official from Guinness World Records, the body which will assess the record-breaking bid.
But the event was soon hijacked to remind the young people whom they have to thank for all their fun – Nazarbayev, who goes by the title of Leader of the Nation. The giant screen that usually plays pop videos as skaters circle the ice was given over to excerpts from his state-of-the-nation address, which was delivered on January 17 and contained the usual dry statements about improving the economy and boosting social well-being.
Critics have long claimed that 73-year-old Nazarbayev – who, in power for over two decades, is one of the world’s longest serving rulers – is the subject of a thriving cult of personality in Kazakhstan, where he brooks no opposition to his autocratic rule but also enjoys genuine public popularity for bringing stability and relative economic prosperity.
Kazakhstan is marking the week leading up to First President’s Day on December 1 with public displays of affection for Nursultan Nazarbayev, the leader whom this public holiday – introduced last year – celebrates.
Fueling criticism that a cult of personality surrounds the president who has ruled independent Kazakhstan for 22 years, one Astana university organized a mass display of student adoration for the man who goes by the title Leader of the Nation.
“Supporting the Leader of the Nation!” chanted some 3,000 students from the Kazakh Humanities and Law University who turned out on November 28 to sing one of the president’s favorite songs and release red and white balloons into the sky against the backdrop of a giant banner showing the word “I” with a red heart followed by the words “Kazakhstan” and “Nazarbayev.”
The university administration insisted the event had all been the students’ idea, and they certainly looked as if they were having a good time on a video Radio Azattyk posted on YouTube.
Not to be outshone, the leaders of the nominal “opposition” in Kazakhstan’s pro-presidential rubberstamp parliament joined the outpouring of affection.
The Communist leader even took the unusual step of hailing the aggressive capitalist reforms of the early 1990s – normally anathema to any communist – that Nazarbayev oversaw when he reluctantly inherited Kazakhstan as an independent state in 1991 (a fact that modern-day official history tends to gloss over, preferring to depict this former leader of Soviet Kazakhstan as at the vanguard of the independence movement).
Turkmenistan’s president has dismantled some of his predecessor’s personality cult – only to replace it with a new one, in the spirit of two for the price of one: Aside from filling television screens and billboards with images of himself, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is intent on immortalizing his father.
Citing Turkmen state television, AFP reported on August 13 that Berdymukhamedov had unveiled a 5-meter bronze bust of his father, Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov, to mark the patriarch’s 81st birthday. The bust is housed at a compound newly built for the Interior Ministry’s military unit No. 1001, where the elder Berdymukhamedov served and retired as a lieutenant colonel back in 1982. Under the terms of a parliamentary resolution last year, the unit now bears Berdymukhamedov Senior’s name.
“Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov enjoys a great reputation as a man who managed to bring up a highly humane son who is infinitely loyal to the Turkmen people and sincerely loves his people, showing a brilliant example of selfless service to his people. The courageous image of Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov, the father of the distinguished president, and his highest humanity serve as [an] enormous example for imitation for all of us,” the resolution says, according to the official Turkmenistan.ru.
After a decade of grilling students on the former president’s “book of the soul,” this fall Turkmenistan will remove the Ruhnama from its school curriculum.
A news website run by Turkmen exiles in Vienna reported this week that a new academic program drafted by Turkmenistan’s Education Ministry for the country’s secondary schools did not include Saparmurat Niyazov’s 2001 Ruhnama, which was once required reading not only for students, but for government employees, too.
According to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, subjects like economics will replace classes dedicated to the book, which became part of the curriculum in 2002.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency confirmed the report and, citing an unnamed ministry official, said on August 1 that “prospective university students will still have to study the Ruhnama for their entry exams.”
Niyazov – who called himself Turkmenbashi, or “Father of the Turkmen” – once instructed youth to read the spiritual guide three times a day in order to secure a place in heaven.
Two years after Niyazov’s 2006 death, the Ruhnama was removed from the university curricula and was taught only one hour per week in secondary schools, RIA Novosti said.
There was a time when he was almost a god, but the memory is fading fast.
On December 21, 2006, the unexpected death of Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov was announced to the world. It is said he died on that day, although some suspect he may have fallen earlier, possibly the result of a nebulous palace coup.
The date is still officially recognized as the “First President Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashi the Great Memorial Day.”
On the eve of the anniversary this year, current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov spoke highly of his predecessor’s legacy. “The service of the first president of Turkmenistan was enormous and will always remain in the people’s memory,” Berdymukhamedov told a Cabinet meeting.
“Everybody that wishes to revere the memory of this extraordinary person can visit Kipchak [Niyazov’s home village] and perform a pilgrimage to the grave of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi,” the president added.
The state news agency tried to give the impression of a rousing turnout of clergy, village elders and crowds of citizenry.
Footage shown on television news offered quite a different picture, however. Not one person was shown laying flowers at the Niyazov mausoleum. Indeed, footage of the mausoleum showed no people inside or outside at all.
That’s hardly surprising, since Niyazov’s imagery has become an ever-decreasing commodity. Photos of the first president no longer appear in newspapers, magazines and textbooks. The only visible reminders in the capital or regional centers are the many statues that were erected under his rule.
Students do still study the Rukhnama, the tomes of Niyazov’s writings described in state propaganda as “holy works,” in one weekly class.
While busily building up his own personality cult, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is also investing substantial efforts into turning his father into a figure of adulation.
State newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reported October 22 that the country’s first monument to the still living Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov has been unveiled in his home village, Yzgant. In an effort at lending legitimacy to the exercise, the besuited bronze bust was approved by the rubber-stamp parliament.
A state television report on the unveiling showed a huge audience including ministers, village elders, local residents and students bursting into lively applause as the awning came off the statue. And as is standard, the foreign diplomatic corps were in attendance to give the event an ambassadorial stamp of approval.
The unveiling was succeeding by traditional dancing and a rendition of a song hailing the Arkadag -- the title of “Protector” now typically bestowed on the president by state media.
Neutral Turkmenistan probably described the mood best: "The unveiling of the monument in Yzgant lent the festivities a spiritual mood that mingled with the triumphant festive music festival to create a sublime symphony of patriotism."
After the ceremony, Berdymukhamedov Jr. himself arrived in a cortege. It is not known if his father attended the jamboree.
Again, Neutral Turkmenistan describes the scene in its trademark style: "Girls in national dress presented bouquets of flowers to the president of Turkmenistan. Representatives of the faith offered up prayers for the good health and longevity of the nation’s leader, and success in all his undertakings in the name of progress and prosperity of the fatherland.”
Star of stage and screen, fairy-tale hero – Kazakhstan’s Leader of the Nation is now getting his place cemented in the history books with the publication of his first official biography.
The tome offers a “historical retrospective” of the life and times of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first (and so far only) president of independent Kazakhstan, under whose astute tutelage the country’s “dramatic” march forward will be viewed.
Being billed by state media as the first attempt at “a historical biographical study of the life and activity” of Nazarbayev, the book, overseen by the president’s office, follows “his path from simple rural guy to national leader.”
If the territory sounds familiar, it is: The early stages of this rise to power and glory were charted in last year’s movie Sky of My Childhood, and Nazarbayev’s life has also featured in a hagiography written by disgraced former British MP Jonathan Aitken (after Aitken served time in a British jail for perjury).
What would it mean if Turkmenistan’s president could only garner the votes of 85 percent of his flock? That support for his gas-subsidized welfare and international neutrality was waning? Or that Middle East dissent could be spilling over to this vast desert of stability? Or that the populace doubts the greatness of his Era of Great Revival?
Or none of those things. Building a truly unassailable cult of personality requires an ever-ascending process of glorification and affirmation. For two decades of independence, this has been the only politics Turkmenistan has ever known.
Another presidential election has passed in Turkmenistan, with another triumphant victory for the incumbent, in this case, Gurbanguly “The Protector” Berdymukhamedov, who won over 97 percent of the vote on February 12. The only question for some observers was whether a more reasonable victory margin was in the cards this year, at least as a gesture to apologists for Turkmenistan’s supposed progress toward democracy.
Berdymukhamedov’s victory with a turnout of over 96 percent still does not quite reach the near-perfect results his predecessor garnered. But give it time.